A Michigan State University paper has taken the internet and other media by storm today by laying out the statistical case that gym attendance can boost a college GPA for freshmen and sophomores. 

The paper, written by kinesiology and epidemiology Professor James Pivarnik and MSU doctoral student Samantha Danbert, demonstrates that “after four consecutive semesters, the students with memberships obtained higher cumulative GPAs. They also had more credits completed by the end of their first year in college.”

While the GPA jump of .13 points may not seem significant at first blush, the authors contend that .13 points can be the difference between persistence and dropping out. The data seem to support that conclusion, with “74 percent of those with memberships successfully gained their sophomore status while only 60 percent reached that goal in the nonmember group.”

MSU’s research comprises a new data collection in a growing stack of data-driven retention knowledge. Retention is a hot topic in education, as schools seek to raise their graduation rates (remember, only ~60% of all first-time, bachelor’s-degree-seeking students graduate within six years from the instutition at which they first enrolled). In fact, the Education Policy Institute just released a new paper on retention and will host a retention summit in late September/early October in San Antonio, Texas (College Parents of America authored two presentations for the conference).

Our research team, familiar with giant stacks of retention research, found the conclusions of Dr. Pivarnik and Samantha Danbert to be quite in keeping with what we know about retention. Campus engagement, which includes membership in organizations and participation in campus activities, are known to be moderate predictors for college persistence. (See: this NCES collection of retention research and this ACT.org paper). Furthermore, campus engagement can increase GPAs, even when controlling for various academic skill predictors. As said in this 2011 Purdue study, “engaged students’ average GPA exceeds the average GPA for all students at every SAT level.”

There’s certainly a lesson here for incoming college students and families. Students need to find an active way to connect on campus socially, academically and with campus organizations or activities. The research notes that this can be more difficult on large college campuses than with small private colleges. However, making this effort is worth it. It correlates with academic productivity and retention. Considering about 29% of students with debt drop out of college, searching out these avenues of campus and community engagement is a wise step in securing one’s financial investment in a college degree.